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Sonita Alleyne: new master of Jesus College



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A media executive and former BBC trustee is to become the first black person to lead an Oxbridge college after being elected master of Jesus College, Cambridge.

Sonita Alleyne OBE took up the post last week – the first woman to hold the role in the college’s 500-year history. And although she is proud to have broken through both of those glass ceilings, Ms Alleyne explains that was not the major attraction for her to the role.

Jesus College new master Sonita Alleyne, Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jesus College new master Sonita Alleyne, Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“I didn’t go for this role thinking ‘Oh great, I’m going to break through glass ceilings’,” she told the Cambridge Independent. “I went for the role because I really enjoyed my time at Cambridge and it had laid a really brilliant foundation for my life. The confidence I got coming here, the contacts I made and the friends I made and the openness to different conversations were really important to me.”

In fact, when she was first approached to apply for the job, she was not completely convinced at first. “I will be honest, I was 60 per cent interested. So I went along and thought about why I wanted to do the role and it was basically the call to care about people that stood out, that’s really important to me.

“I like caring and mentoring. I like the idea of it being a 10-year post and the ability every year to say how is it better, not just for me but for undergraduates, graduates, staff, fellows... everyone.

“It’s very odd to be 100 per cent interested in something immediately – then you would just be going for the title, you wouldn’t be going and finding out who you are going to be working with. I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people. I looked at student newspapers and blogs, because that is ultimately who you are serving, and I spoke to other heads of house. I started meeting people and that’s when my interest moved from 60 per cent to ‘Yes, this is a full lean in’. And I knew it was a place where I could bring my family and contemplate spending 10 years.”

Jesus College new master Sonita Alleyne, Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (19254201)
Jesus College new master Sonita Alleyne, Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (19254201)

Ms Alleyne read philosophy at Ftizwilliam College as an undergraduate and was happy at the prospect of returning to the city, but the place itself is not what pulled her back. Instead, she explained: “Cambridge is a beautiful city, whether you are working in the colleges or not, it is full of beautiful architecture, but ultimately you get used to that and you make decisions based on the people you are going to be working with. That’s what I liked about Jesus College. It’s really unique having that community. That’s what we strive for a lot in large firms – we want that idea of community and working together.”

The businesswoman, who is chairwoman of the British Board of Film Classification’s management council, started her career at Jazz FM and then became a co-founder of the production company, Somethin’ Else.

“I’m very interested in careers and agency, maybe that’s my entrepreneurial background. Making sure students have very well-rounded education so that they obviously have academic excellence, but also agency and the ability to go forth in life to make a difference.”

Jesus College new master Sonita Alleyne, Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell.
Jesus College new master Sonita Alleyne, Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell.

She has plans to help improve diversity and inclusion at the university but says the college is already working in that direction. “The narrative around it is definitely changing,” she says, citing 74 per cent of the new cohort are from state school, 25 per cent of students are from underrepresented areas, and 20 per cent are BAME.

Ms Alleyne attended her first major college event as master at the weekend, a celebration of 40 years of women being allowed to study at the college.

She said: “It’s important to mark these anniversaries, to acknowledge how far we’ve come in widening access to the college and university, and to spur on our work to encourage applications from anyone from any background who has the potential to thrive here.”

“I experienced my first glass ceiling when I was at school,” she says. “I remember being in the classroom when I was quite young and the teacher asking me not to read so well, not to answer questions so much, because boys weren’t reading as fast. I couldn’t comprehend it. It felt like a real boys versus girls unfairness.

“There was this angry little girl going ‘“hat’s going on here?’ She has mellowed over time but throughout my career I will push against glass doors and tear down glass ceilings.”

However, Ms Alleyne is planning to get to know the college before attempting to make any changes.

“I think a bad entrance to a new organisation would be to come in and not spend quite a long time finding out what the organisation is about, listening to people and also realising that the best ideas are probably already in the organisation anyway, and my role as master is making sure those good ideas come out, rise to the top and get acted on.”



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